Hiking with Alpacas in Germany
Alpacas are domesticated camelids and largely found only in farms around the world. Once prized for their milk and meat, demand for their wool has brought down meat trade. Photo Courtesy: Alpakafarm Schaber
From the moment Rudi is handed to me, I sense that he is skittish and perhaps distrustful of me. He hyperventilates occasionally as his woolly nostrils flare up, and tugs at his leash as we walk alongside each other. All around us are fields of dill, pumpkin, and potatoes framed by the summer green of the peaks of Swabian Alps on the horizon. I rub his sand-coloured neck and belly, recently shorn by his minders, and that seems to put him at ease.
Sandy-brown Rudi, with dark plums for eyes and an inquisitive stare, is a three-year old alpaca who lives in a farm in Nürtingen, a town in south Germany. On this midsummer July morning on a Saturday, he is also my companion for the houHiking with r-long alpaca hike arranged by his owners at Alpakafarm Schaber.
Alpacas are curious creatures. Their long necks are held straight, giraffe-like, and their elongated eyes and upright oval ears make them look more like genetically mutated chow chow dogs. Nothing surprises you more than the sight of an alpaca ambling around in the sparsely populated woods of Germany, far from their natural habitat in South American Andes. Startled by the sight of a few of them on a weekend trek around Stuttgart, I began to enquire further, and my research led me to the picket-fenced gates of Schaber.
Domesticated by the Incas as meat and wool suppliers about 5,000 years ago, the alpacas’ valuable wool and adaptability to warm weather conditions have made them extremely reliable farm animals. As a result, there are profitable alpaca farms across the globe, from the rolling mountains of Oregon in the west coast of the U.S., to the alpine meadows of south Australia’s Victorian High Country. Now, Germans looking for a brief weekend getaway drive to farms like Schaber’s to watch alpacas and if keen, take them for a walk around the farm in groups.
Not that the animals are entirely interested, of course. I witnessed the disinterest a little earlier, as Rudi was coaxed out of his pen to walk with me on this hike. He seemed he’d much rather chew on his fodder ponderously, in the comfort of his enclosure.
Trudging along fields bordered by a forest of pine and beech trees in the German countryside, we looked like curious dog walkers in training. One other thing united us—our collective clumsiness in handling the tame farm animal. “Mein ist ungefallen,” screams a girl, “mine had fallen down.” Another couple, busy taking selfies, lets the leash loose, prompting its alpaca to skitter away, scaring the passerines, the brown-blue Eurasian jays and monochromatic magpies hunting for insects in the field. Quite oblivious to this drama is Rudi, leading the pack, who seems sufficiently perplexed in my hands at this early morning intrusion to his routine as much as the job to lead.
As we walked, I get talking to our minder Rudi Torgl (after whom my alpaca is named). A genial, middle-aged south German with a rolling belly, his dream of owning an alpaca farm someday has prompted him to intern with the Schabers. On another weekend not long ago, Torgl was flipping channels when a documentary of alpacas caught his attention. He was instantly smitten. “I know a lot about the animals now but I’m still looking for a place to buy,” he says.
A similar love-at-first-sight alpaca story played out when I asked the farm owner Tina Schaber about her interest in the animals. Tina’s husband saw the alpacas first at a farmer’s exhibition in nearby Stuttgart. “My husband went there to take pictures but he saw the animals and fell in love with them. He came home and said he wanted to have alpacas.”
It was in the beginning of 2000s and alpaca farming was just gaining momentum in Germany. In a way, the Schabers are pioneers of alpaca farming in the country. Now, it might seem, you are never farther than two-hours driving distance from an alpaca farm in Germany. The Schabers started with three animals imported from Canada and the herd has now flourished to a healthy 180, including the babies whose wool commands more price in the market.
On a Saturday, Schaber’s farm is brimming with a constant stream of visitors. Saucer-eyed participants of a child’s birthday party and young girls from a bachelorette party group are milling around the farm. Turns out, no one is immune from the charms of alpacas.
In a showroom attached to the farm, the Schabers sell alpaca wool products: blankets, pillows, jackets, cardigans, scarves, stoles, and hats. Owing to the softness of alpaca fibre and their durability, they even surpass cashmere in price and sustainability because cashmere goats have been crossbred over the years, adulterating the quality of their fibre. “The wool is really expensive but the products are sustainable in the long run. They will look as good as new ten years from now,” says Tina.
Back at the hike, it’s time to return to the farm but Rudi shows no signs of slowing down as he gradually thaws to me. Our walking rhythm falls into place and he stops tugging at his leash. While I revel in the fleeting alpaca love affair, more pressing existential concerns cause Rudi to interrupt me. As we approach the fencing of his grazing area, he sees his flock, lifts his head momentarily to beseech me with his dark plum eyes and just like that, shakes the leash off my grip. “Auf Wiedersehen, Rudi,” I scream in his direction as he gallops into the meadows overgrown with turmeric yellow wild dandelions.
Nürtingen-Neckarhausen, where Alpakafarm Schaber is located, is a 33 km/40 min drive from the south-German city of Stuttgart (www.alpakafarm.com; train to Nürtingen from €12/Rs915 and further, bus to Neckarhausen mitte €8/Rs620). The farm is a 20-min uphill hike away. In addition to alpaca hikes, it also conducts farm visits peppered with interesting trivia about the alpacas, like how they are naturally toilet trained and never poop in their beds (hour-long hike adults €15/Rs1,140 children up to 15 €9/Rs680; farm visit adults €12/ Rs910 children €3/Rs230).